Introductory Note:

When creating a rule of life, it’s tempting to pack in all the things we think an ideal Christian should do. But in doing so, our rule, meant to be a guide to freedom, can become a harsh ruler in both senses of the word—a joyless dictator, and a measuring stick against which we fall short. In this article, Chris Webb provides practical tips for forming a life-giving and realistic rule of life based on the six streams from Richard Foster’s Streams of Living Water.

Renovaré Team

Liv­ing by Rhythms

We are all crea­tures of habit.

In the sum­mer of 2008, a group of researchers from Boston pub­lished a study in the sci­en­tif­ic jour­nal Nature, in which they fol­lowed the move­ments of over 100,000 peo­ple by anony­mous­ly track­ing their cell phone sig­nals. They found that we tend to revis­it the same places, at the same times, with an aston­ish­ing (and almost monot­o­nous) pre­dictabil­i­ty. In oth­er words, if you like cap­puc­ci­nos, chances are high that you vis­it the same cof­fee shop most days, and usu­al­ly at the same time in your dai­ly routine.

There is a pat­tern to our activ­i­ties. We build struc­ture into our days. We cre­ate fam­i­ly tra­di­tions and rit­u­als. Our church­es use litur­gies,” even if we nev­er write them down — we tend to fol­low the same order of wor­ship week by week. Even though we often rejoice in spon­tane­ity and excitabil­i­ty, the truth is we like rou­tines; we pre­fer order to chaos.

We live by rhythms.

Antho­ny and the Angel

The Say­ings of the Desert Fathers, a col­lec­tion of sto­ries from ear­ly Chris­t­ian Egypt, tells a fas­ci­nat­ing tale about struc­ture and rhythms. Antho­ny of Egypt was a young man who went to live in the harsh desert regions east of the Nile with one sim­ple yet dar­ing goal in mind: to strip away every dis­trac­tion this world had to offer so he could seek God with his whole heart. Antho­ny pur­sued life with God at a lev­el of inten­si­ty most of us find dif­fi­cult to imag­ine — a pur­suit which led to incred­i­ble spir­i­tu­al expe­ri­ences: visions of Christ, bat­tles with evil spir­its, and divine revelations.

Antho­ny, though, became deeply dis­cour­aged, uncer­tain that all his efforts were real­ly achiev­ing any­thing. He was still deeply con­scious of his sins, still (at times) felt far from God. He turned his anx­i­ety into prayer: Lord, I want to be made whole by your grace, but this dis­cour­age­ment will not leave me alone. What can I do? How can I be made whole?”

As he fin­ished pray­ing he opened the door of his cell and caught sight of an angel sit­ting out­side patient­ly weav­ing reed bas­kets. After a while the angel set aside his work, stood up, and stretched out his hands to pray. Then when he had fin­ished, he sat down and began weav­ing again. As Antho­ny watched from his door­way, the angel turned to him, smiled, and said, Antho­ny, just do this — and then you will be made whole.”

To Antho­ny, the point was imme­di­ate­ly clear. The angel did not bring anoth­er astound­ing expe­ri­ence, anoth­er rev­e­la­tion or vision. Instead, he mod­eled a rhythm of liv­ing. Work and pray. Work and pray. Ora et lab­o­ra. Just do this and do it this way, qui­et­ly and faith­ful­ly — and you will find the whole­ness of life you seek.

An Inten­tion­al Rhythm

What Antho­ny had dis­cov­ered was that our incli­na­tion to live by rhythms can be turned to our advan­tage: it can become a cat­a­lyst for pro­found spir­i­tu­al growth. Every day we live is like a minia­ture pic­ture of our whole life: all our pri­or­i­ties are some­how reflect­ed in the way we choose to invest the few hours between each sun­rise and sunset. 

The way we struc­ture our days not only reveals our char­ac­ter and pri­or­i­ties, it can also help to shape them. We make some choic­es because of who we are, but oth­ers because of who we wish to become. And so appren­tices of Jesus have long real­ized that we can express our desire to fol­low him not only in par­tic­u­lar activ­i­ties — spir­i­tu­al prac­tices and dis­ci­plines — but also in the rou­tines and rit­u­als of life. 

We may be wired to live by rhythms, but we can inten­tion­al­ly set the beat: we can struc­ture our dai­ly liv­ing as a lov­ing response to the grace of God in Christ.

Reg­u­la Vitae

In the Chris­t­ian tra­di­tion, this desire to inten­tion­al­ly struc­ture our lives as Christ fol­low­ers was usu­al­ly expressed through the reg­u­la vitae, the Rule of Life” (the Latin is pro­nounced ray-goo-lah vee-tay”). 

In our con­tem­po­rary soci­ety, when we hear the word rule many of us imme­di­ate­ly begin think­ing of laws, com­mands, reg­u­la­tions, and direc­tives. The more the­o­log­i­cal­ly-mind­ed might bris­tle: is this an attempt to sub­vert the grace of God in favor of a sys­tem of mer­it and reward: obey the rules and God will love you? Oth­ers, steeped in our cul­ture of fierce indi­vid­u­al­ism and inde­pen­dence, might balk for dif­fer­ent rea­sons: we have become rules-averse.” No one, we say, can tell me how to live my life. I want free­dom and choice, not the con­stric­tion of laws and commands.

But a reg­u­la vitae, a Rule of Life, is nei­ther an attempt to prove our­selves to God, nor to impose any­thing on oth­er people. 

The Latin word reg­u­la orig­i­nal­ly described a wood­en strip with mark­ings which could be used in con­struc­tion or draw­ing. A reg­u­la was not the rule we find on the statute books — it was the rule we used in geom­e­try class­es to help make the sides of our tri­an­gles straight and true. In the same way, a reg­u­la vitae is not a set of instruc­tions telling us how me must live. It is a descrip­tion of how we might live. A Rule of Life out­lines a pat­tern of liv­ing which is immersed in Christ, and invites us to shape our­selves to it — to become straight and true. Those wood­en rules we used in school nev­er com­mand­ed us to draw tri­an­gles, nor told us where the tri­an­gles should be drawn, nor did they make us draw rec­tan­gles instead. But, when we want­ed to draw a tri­an­gle well, they sud­den­ly became invaluable.

1. Explor­ing the Rhythm

I would like to encour­age you to take part in a mod­est three-part exper­i­ment with me.

In the first stage of our exper­i­ment we deter­mine our cur­rent rhythms of life. This is a very sim­ple exer­cise, yet one which can be both reveal­ing and surprising.

Take a blank sheet of paper and a pen, and write a head­ing at the top of the page: Dai­ly.” Under this head­ing, write down any­thing you can think of which is part of your dai­ly pat­tern of life. Most of what you write will be fair­ly mun­dane: brush teeth,” or eat break­fast.” No mat­ter. Try to cap­ture it all, and be as hon­est as you can. You might wish you prayed for two hours every morn­ing, but if the truth is oth­er­wise, write, Three min­utes of prayer in the car.” It may not be inspir­ing, but tell it like it is.

Next, write a sec­ond head­ing: Week­ly,” and under that head­ing add any­thing which is part of your week­ly rou­tine which has not already been cap­tured under the Dai­ly” head­ing. After that, com­plete a list of Month­ly” items, and final­ly an Annu­al” list.

Last­ly, sit back and take a look through what you have writ­ten. This is your cur­rent reg­u­la vitae, the rhythm and pat­tern of your life as it stands right now. As you re-read it, ask your­self this: is there scope here for express­ing my love for Jesus more ful­ly, more deeply, more pas­sion­ate­ly? Could I inte­grate my desire to fol­low Christ more com­plete­ly into this dai­ly rou­tine? For most of us, the chances are good that the answer would be, Yes.” And attempt­ing to describe what that might look like will be the focus of the sec­ond part of our experiment.

2. Draft­ing a Rule

Now take a sec­ond blank sheet of paper, and set it along­side the first. On this sheet I am going to invite you to write six head­ings (which is quite a few, but you will only need enough space under each to write two or three lines).

The six head­ings are:

  • Con­tem­pla­tive
  • Holi­ness
  • Charis­mat­ic
  • Social Jus­tice
  • Evan­gel­i­cal
  • Incar­na­tion­al

Those of you who are more famil­iar with Renovaré’s teach­ing and mate­ri­als will rec­og­nize the six streams of Chris­t­ian dis­ci­ple­ship described in Richard Foster’s book Streams of Liv­ing Water, which form the basis of many of Renovaré’s con­fer­ences and mate­ri­als. At Ren­o­varé, we use these six head­ings (which will each be described in more detail below) to pro­vide a round­ed descrip­tion of the char­ac­ter of Jesus, which we see reflect­ed in the life of his body, the Church.

As we fol­low Jesus, and immerse our­selves in his grace-giv­ing pres­ence, we find our­selves grad­u­al­ly becom­ing more like Christ, and grow­ing in each of these six areas. And as our pas­sions and char­ac­ter are aligned with those of Jesus, so we increas­ing­ly become inten­tion­al about express­ing each of these aspects of his life in our walk with him.

For the sec­ond part of our exper­i­ment, I am going to lead you through a reflec­tion on the pat­terns and rhythms of your life in the light of each of these six areas, and to ask two sim­ple questions:

  • How is this aspect of the char­ac­ter of Christ already expressed in my life?
  • How could this aspect of the char­ac­ter of Christ be more ful­ly expressed in my life?

Under each head­ing, I sug­gest that you write one or two (no more) sim­ple state­ments of inten­tion, which express in con­crete terms how your desire to fol­low Jesus can be expressed in your dai­ly liv­ing — either by describ­ing some­thing you already do, or by out­lin­ing some­thing you could be doing.

Mod­er­a­tion

We need to remind our­selves that there is all the dif­fer­ence in the world between what I could be doing” and what I fan­ta­size about doing.” All of us enjoy spir­i­tu­al fan­tasies from time to time. In our dreams, we have all been spir­i­tu­al giants, absorbed in prayer and Bible read­ing every morn­ing for hours before dawn. But the exer­cise we are now engaged in is about our real lives in the real world — and it will only have val­ue inso­far as we remem­ber that.

So, as you seek to artic­u­late, along­side what you are already doing, those things you could be doing under each of these six head­ings, may I offer a few words of advice?

  • Keep it sim­ple and spe­cif­ic. Stay with­in the bound­aries of real­i­ty. You are more like­ly to read a por­tion of Scrip­ture some evenings than to read the whole Bible in a week.
  • Do not just describe your life as it is now, but do not stray too far from that either. Allow some room for growth, but remem­ber: there are no prizes to win. Prac­tice mod­esty and moderation.
  • A help­ful rule of thumb: do not write too much. One or two ideas under each head­ing is enough. If you can­not com­press every­thing you write onto one side of an index card, it is prob­a­bly too much.

3. The Six Streams

Now we will look togeth­er at each of those six areas of our walk with Christ, and reflect on how they might find expres­sion in the rhythms of our dai­ly lives. We are going to make a rough first draft of a reg­u­la vitae, a per­son­al
Rule of Life. Keep it sim­ple and spe­cif­ic. Stay with­in the bound­aries of reality.

Con­tem­pla­tive

How do I intend to seek to be open to, and immersed in, the pres­ence of God? How will I pray and worship?

Right away, we need to be very care­ful. When sketch­ing out a Rule of Life, it is in answer­ing this ques­tion that we are most like­ly to indulge in unre­al­is­tic spir­i­tu­al hero­ics. It would be inex­press­ibly won­der­ful to spend four hours every day in prayer. But which of us ever will? On the oth­er hand, most of us can find ten min­utes every day for prayer (even if that means set­ting the morn­ing alarm clock a few min­utes ear­li­er). You are far more like­ly to suc­cess­ful­ly build a mod­est rhythm of prayer into your day than to utter­ly reor­ga­nize your life around hours of devotion.

It helps to think in spe­cif­ic terms about what your prayer might look like, and not only how long you will devote to pray­ing. If your inten­tion is to spend ten min­utes every day in prayer, when and where will you pray? Will you include wor­ship, singing, inter­ces­sion, silence? Is Bible read­ing going to be a focus of your prayer? Will you make use of some prayer resource, such as the Dai­ly Office used in the litur­gi­cal church­es? Try to find a rhythm that works well now. If your pat­tern of prayer changes nat­u­ral­ly over the months and years, sim­ply rewrite your Rule to reflect that — it is not carved in stone.

Holi­ness

How do I intend to cul­ti­vate habits of holy liv­ing, and learn to resist temptation?

A good Rule is a pos­i­tive state­ment, a rhythm of liv­ing — not a list of actions to avoid. This is not the place to detail your vices and secret sins, togeth­er with a res­o­lu­tion to abstain from them. Of course, these beset­ting spir­i­tu­al ill­ness­es are pre­cise­ly what we hope to see healed as we open our­selves more ful­ly to God’s grace, and the pur­pose of the Rule is to pat­tern our lives so that we can be as open as pos­si­ble. But resolv­ing not to sin is usu­al­ly sim­ply a pious hope (and an inten­tion to solve the prob­lem our­selves any­way, rather than sub­mit to God’s gra­cious healing).

One of the key dis­ci­plines which helps us grow in grace as we resist temp­ta­tion is self-denial. Our rhythm of spir­i­tu­al liv­ing should seek to take seri­ous­ly the prac­tices of fast­ing, silence, soli­tude, sub­mis­sion, and ser­vice— any­thing that requires us to set aside our own appetites, desires, and will in favor of God or anoth­er per­son. Silence and soli­tude, for exam­ple, give us the oppor­tu­ni­ty to refrain from the con­stant process of man­ag­ing our pub­lic image, and allow us sim­ply to become our­selves in God’s mer­ci­ful pres­ence. Ser­vice and sub­mis­sion teach us ways of pre­fer­ring oth­ers to our­selves, dethron­ing us from the cen­ter of our uni­verse for a short while.

The oth­er cru­cial dis­ci­pline we should con­sid­er is con­fes­sion. A peri­od of hon­est self-exam­i­na­tion, lead­ing to a time of con­fes­sion (whether to God or a gra­cious fel­low Chris­t­ian) helps us put our sins into per­spec­tive. Reflec­tion helps us to under­stand how deeply we have wound­ed our­selves, oth­ers, and God. But, mer­ci­ful­ly, we also dis­cov­er the immea­sur­able love and for­give­ness of God who sets our sins as far as the east is from the west” (Psalm 103:12).

Charis­mat­ic

How can I allow the Holy Spir­it to min­is­ter through me?

Before we can min­is­ter to any­one, we must first com­mit our­selves to them. Paul reminds us that to each one the man­i­fes­ta­tion of the Spir­it is giv­en for the com­mon good” (1 Corinthi­ans 12:7). So before I can start offer­ing my spir­i­tu­al gifts to oth­ers, I must have offered myself. My rhythm of life needs to make explic­it the ways in which I will engage with the com­mu­ni­ty of God’s peo­ple (and the wider world, although we will spell that out more in the Incar­na­tion­al sec­tion below). We begin by ask­ing: how will I show my com­mit­ment to the par­tic­u­lar Chris­t­ian com­mu­ni­ties to which God has
called me?

Only then can we find appro­pri­ate ways of express­ing the gifts God has giv­en us, always remem­ber­ing that a Rule seeks to estab­lish a rhythm of dai­ly liv­ing, not to describe every­thing we might ever do. The Spir­it blows where he wills, and offers his gifts through us in his own time, accord­ing to his own desire. I will seek oppor­tu­ni­ties to use my gift of prophe­cy” might form part of a good rule, but I will proph­esy every day” would not!

Social Jus­tice

How can I act just­ly and love mer­cy” as I walk humbly” with my God (Mic­ah 6:8)? How can my life con­tribute to the health of my soci­ety and world?

There are a myr­i­ad of ways of express­ing God’s com­pas­sion for this bro­ken world in our own lives. For some, this will mean involve­ment in a polit­i­cal par­ty or group; for oth­ers, work with a non-prof­it or devel­op­ment agency, whether paid or vol­un­tary; and for still oth­ers, a con­nec­tion with local com­mu­ni­ty ini­tia­tives: soup kitchens, play­groups, coun­sel­ing ser­vices. This area also chal­lenges us to think about lifestyle issues, which may find expres­sion in a per­son­al Rule: will I embrace habits of sim­plic­i­ty, or con­sid­er my impact on the glob­al cli­mate, or com­mit to pur­chas­ing fair trade food?

What­ev­er the nature of our response, we are remind­ed that fol­low­ing Christ is not a pure­ly inward mat­ter iso­lat­ed from the pain of the world around us. We are draft­ing a per­son­al Rule of Life, but not a pri­vate one; our inten­tion to live as appren­tices of Jesus must be worked out in the pub­lic, social, and polit­i­cal realms. God’s grace is giv­en not only to change us, but to touch oth­ers through us. As the poet John Donne said, No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the Con­ti­nent, a part of the main … I am involved in Mankind.”

Evan­gel­i­cal

How am I allow­ing the voice of God to speak to me, and through me? How am I engag­ing and express­ing Scripture?

A very impor­tant part of this is, of course, our read­ing of the Bible, and a good per­son­al Rule should seek to reflect that. Remem­ber, though, that we are not being paid by the page. Sheer vol­ume of con­sump­tion is not the aim. It would be far bet­ter to spend ten min­utes soak­ing in a sin­gle verse from the Psalms, until we are lost in won­der and praise of God, than to spend two hours mow­ing through Deuteron­o­my and walk­ing away feel­ing we had mas­tered it. As else­where, mod­er­a­tion is everything.

It is also worth think­ing about the ways in which we share the fruit of that engage­ment with Scrip­ture. Every day presents us with oppor­tu­ni­ties to share our faith — with our fam­i­ly and friends, with work col­leagues and neigh­bors, with oth­er Chris­tians and with those who do not share our rela­tion­ship with Christ. In the par­tic­u­lar cir­cum­stances in which we find our­selves, what are those oppor­tu­ni­ties, and how can we express an inten­tion to make the most of them?

Incar­na­tion­al

How can I know the extra­or­di­nary grace of God through the com­mon mat­ter of every­day liv­ing? How can my life become a sacra­men­tal experience?

The clas­sic def­i­n­i­tion of a sacra­ment is an out­ward and vis­i­ble sign of an inward and invis­i­ble grace.” It makes grace tan­gi­ble, reveal­ing the pres­ence and life of God in our mate­r­i­al world. Bro­ken bread is an invi­ta­tion to par­tic­i­pate in the bro­ken­ness of Christ cru­ci­fied; bap­tismal water makes vis­i­ble the cleans­ing mer­cy of God wash­ing through us. For twen­ty cen­turies Chris­tians have argued and divid­ed over the mechan­ics of the sacra­ments — but we have always agreed that, how­ev­er it hap­pens, in some way these mate­ri­als, this phys­i­cal stuff, serves to make God present and real to us.

The sacra­ments, in turn, become signs to us of the great­est sacra­ment: cre­ation. Every­thing that exists is an out­ward and vis­i­ble sym­bol of God’s lov­ing grace. And so every aspect of our lives has the poten­tial to become holy. We all — whether as postal work­ers, CEO’s, home­mak­ers, or gro­cery clerks — live sacred lives in a God-blessed world. Our per­son­al Rule will
reflect this. We need to con­sid­er how we will be con­nect­ed with the sacra­men­tal life of our Chris­t­ian com­mu­ni­ty. But we also need to think about our dai­ly work and play, our fam­i­lies and neigh­bor­hood, the con­texts that make up our mun­dane, every­day world — and con­sid­er how they might become for us the place where God is made vis­i­ble. This is, per­haps, the most chal­leng­ing call­ing of all.

Putting It Together

When you have worked through these six areas, what might your Rule of Life look like? I know from per­son­al expe­ri­ence how hard it can be to out­line a con­crete pat­tern of life. When I first drew up a per­son­al Rule of Life as part of my prepa­ra­tion to become a Fran­cis­can, I found it help­ful to see some­one else’s Rule, to get an idea of what I was work­ing towards. So I took a moment to rearrange my own per­son­al Rule under the six head­ings described above. This was the result:

A Per­son­al Rule of Life

Con­tem­pla­tive
Pray the dai­ly offices of Morn­ing and Evening Prayer.
Make a retreat once every year.

Holi­ness
Fast until the evening meal one day every week.
Prac­tice an exam­i­na­tion of con­science” once a week.

Charis­mat­ic
Wor­ship togeth­er with the Church every Sun­day, when­ev­er pos­si­ble.
Par­tic­i­pate in the Fran­cis­can com­mu­ni­ty, includ­ing spir­i­tu­al direction.

Social Jus­tice
Prac­tice sim­plic­i­ty: give gen­er­ous­ly and trav­el light.
Prac­tice hos­pi­tal­i­ty: open my home to all.

Evan­gel­i­cal
Read Scrip­ture dai­ly.
Study at least one oth­er Chris­t­ian book each month.

Incar­na­tion­al
Par­tic­i­pate in the cel­e­bra­tion of the Eucharist on Sun­days and holy days, when­ev­er pos­si­ble.
Seek to serve and hon­or God in my dai­ly life and work.

I would be the first to admit, it is not exact­ly earth-shak­ing. This hand­ful of sim­ple, straight­for­ward com­mit­ments is not about to change the world. But it did change my world. This has been the over­all rhythm of my life for the last nine years. It is not wild­ly vision­ary, which is per­haps why I have been able to main­tain it over the years. This is how I live now… but it is not the way I lived before. These dozen com­mit­ments rep­re­sent­ed a gen­tle alter­ation in course, a shift of a few degrees, which estab­lished new pat­terns of life for me. They opened me a lit­tle more to the grace of God. A week after I wrote them, I hard­ly noticed any dif­fer­ence. A month lat­er, still not much. Now, almost a decade down the road, I see how fol­low­ing through these mod­est inten­tions has had a pro­found impact on every impor­tant area of my life.

4. Mak­ing a Choice

This leads us to the final part of our exper­i­ment: prac­tice. You now have before you two doc­u­ments, one describ­ing your cur­rent rhythms of your life, and anoth­er out­lin­ing the rhythms that could be. They are not wild­ly diver­gent (at least, if you have exer­cised good sense and mod­er­a­tion, they should not be), but they are dif­fer­ent. If you main­tain the rhythms of your life now, you will con­tin­ue to see pret­ty much the same results — the same growth and strug­gles, the same weak­ness­es and strengths. To adapt your­self to a dif­fer­ent rhythm will mean change: per­haps greater close­ness to Christ, per­haps more open­ness to growth; per­haps also the expo­sure of new weak­ness­es and strug­gles. A per­son­al Rule of Life will not make you per­fect or solve all your prob­lems. It may well help you, though, to become more inten­tion­al about liv­ing your life for Jesus Christ.

So I would like to invite you to exper­i­ment. For the next few months, try set­ting the new rhythm. Be pre­pared to make mis­takes. Learn from the expe­ri­ence, make changes, and try again. If you need to, come back and rewrite the whole Rule from scratch — remem­ber, it is a reg­u­la not a reg­u­la­tion, a guide not a law. See if it helps you live more straight and true, helps you become more open to God’s mar­velous grace.

And then, after per­haps three or four months, come back and com­pare your two sheets of paper again. Ask your­self just one ques­tion: if you could go back to your old pat­terns and rou­tines, would you choose to?

What will be the rhythm of your life?

Orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished in Ren­o­varé Expres­sions, cir­ca 2010.

Text First Published January 2010 · Last Featured on Renovare.org December 2021

📚 The 2022 – 23 Ren­o­varé Book Club

This year’s nine-month, soul-shap­ing jour­ney fea­tures four books, old and new, prayer­ful­ly curat­ed by Ren­o­varé. Now under­way and there’s still time to join.

View Selections & Learn More >